Monday, August 8, 2011

The Desert Boot

First off, I'd like to share a link to an article on local tailor Al Ribaya of Al's Attire in North Beach:

Pretty cool write-up on what he's about and I'm excited to be picking up my first Al's Attire bespoke suit tomorrow! (Blog post on that coming soon.) 
Okay, now on to today's subject at hand: the desert boot.

Not gonna lie to you folks, not a fan of desert boots. Yes, I know they are a staple of casual Mod wear and many people do look good in them. I repeat, many people do look good in them. But, they're just not my thing. A friend recently posted a pic of some zebra-striped desert boots (see below) for discussion, so I thought I’d talk about the desert boot, in general, here.

A quick Cliff Notes history of the desert boot, specifically the Clarks Desert Boot: According to the Clarks website, the Desert Boot debuted in 1950, designed by Nathan Clark, who recently passed away on June 23, 2011. 
Inspired by the suede, crepe-soled boots WWII servicemen acquired in Cairo, Clark designed a version made for comfort and (a lot of) walking for the general public. Sixties Mods, at some point, took to these shoes and helped popularize them, and today they’re a hit all around. (I recently overheard a couple of older guys looking at a pair in a store window commenting on how “in style” they are these days.)
Nathan Clark with his designs.
My wife and I often see a man in the neighborhood who looks to be in his late ‘40s/early ‘50s and usually dressed in a Levis jacket, 501 jeans, a sixties-ish hairstyle, and black desert boots. The guy looks mellow and cool, and he ROCKS those desert boots!

Like I said before, I think desert boots look fine on other people when worn correctly. They’re casual shoes and I hear they can be quite comfortable.  Many of my friends sport them throughout the week and I think they look great in them. Plus, I bet they're perfect for those times you need to get down 'n' dirty working on your scooter! But for my personal tastes, I just find them just a bit too bulky and clunky. I’m more of a narrow, chisel-toe, leather shoe guy. Or, even a narrow sneaker kinda guy when I’m really crazy lazy or about to go on a long hike.

As history has shown, many people have made these things look good over the years. For instance:
You gonna tell this guy he ain't lookin' good?
Photo from the Steve McQueen Style blog.
These desert boots show their use as they keep this Carnaby Mod from tipping over.
From the Belt and Braces blog.
Yeah, now that's how you wear a pair of desert boots. (Of course, I'd much rather be wearing John's or Pete's shoes here.)

On the other hand, many people have worn them with just the wrong type of outfit, like, y’know, an actual SUIT. Sorry guys, not a good look. I know he’s a ‘Mod’ hero and all, but nah, just doesn’t work. In fact, one of the lessons I learned from Jimmy was that not every fashion choice in the '60s was a good one. Case in point:
Oh, that's right... he's off to fight Rockers. No wonder the suit and sloppy shoe look.

Did you know they now have patterned desert boots? Some things just aren’t meant for customization:

As you can see from some of the photos earlier, desert boots can look really cool with the right outfit. They are a CASUAL shoe that look good on many people. And I know many Mods in the 1960s wore them with suits, but remember, not everything done in the sixties was a winner and for me, desert boots just don’t do justice to a nice two-piece suit. If you’re gonna take the effort to tie a tie around your neck, then you can find a nice pair of dress shoes to complete the look. Leave the desert boots for the following morning.


  1. Just bought these in Lisbon, Portugal.

  2. Hey Derek, not quite my style, but I do have to say there's something interesting about those. The more subtle pattern and softer fabric looks like something I can totally see in an old '60s photo. Plus, they don't look as bulky... there's something almost Buffalo Sprinfieldish about them!

  3. Never liked them with a suit either. I'm wearing mine right now with levis. They seem to have made a big comeback, but I can't remember when I didn't have a pair.

  4. Desert boots? Here's my favorite photo of them in action:

    Gerry Mulligan. 1953. Casual. Cuffed trousers. Dirty as hell.

    In addition to the mod thing, there are plenty of beat(nik) and surfer connections to the chukka boot. I've seen photos of McQueen wearing them earlier than the photo you posted, so I suspect he was drawing from West Coast early 60s style. I wear my dark brown pair a couple of times a week, always with either chinos or Levi's, one step up from sneakers in my book.

  5. I agree they are not for everyone, but I think complete the "look" of casual cool.

    Wearing them with a suit doesn't cut it unless they are fresh out of the box. After one wearing you'd have to start over with a new pair the next time around.

    I picked up a pair of these in London..

    The flat sole of a trek is much more comfortable for walking and they look great..decidely less Jimmy Cooper and more Steve McQueen IMHO.

  6. That's a pretty great photo of Gerry Mulligan! Darn it... should have spent more time photo searching.

    John, the version you posted is one I've seen often on old Mod photos. I'd be more into those than the actual 'boot' version.

    And Dean, PLEASE make that your profile photo! That is awesome!

  7. I only ever wore desert boots with a suit if they were, as my esteemed old school chum Mr. Manion stated, fresh out of the box. One of my fave "looks" in my younger days was a crisply pressed pair of white Levi's, a seersucker jacket and a brand new pair of tan Clarks! I was always aghast of the ones Jimmy wore with a suit in "Quad" as they resembled a well worn pair of Timberlands! I own four pairs of Clark's in four different colors but haven't worn the black ones since the very first Mod Chicago after the laces broke and I've yet to find proper replacements. Silly I know but it's all about detail isn't it?

  8. Nice boots Derek. I've been going to Lisbon for years (my in-laws live acrosss the river in Barreiro)and never came across anything that cool (I do find lots of great clothes there in stores geared towards "old gentleman")!

  9. More historic DB/chukka sightings, this time courtesy of The Weejun. Check out his excellent blog in full, if you have the time:

  10. Desert Boots rock. You're right though, they do have a limited template of clothes that work well with them and they tend to be a lazy Mods way of getting by (as is the Fred Perry polo). Best is high water pants that just touch the top of the boot. California 60's cool.

  11. However, hush puppies must die as well as the Clark's with the seam down the middle. Atrocious!

  12. Agreed, David. And like I said, other people wearing them look fine... just not for me.

    I did used to be into hush puppies though. I used to like the shape a lot since they were a tad more narrow than desert boots. I stopped wearing them, though, because they used to dig into my ankle too much. But the grey hush puppies were usually pretty cool-looking.

  13. As you can see from some of the photos earlier, desert boots can look really cool with the right outfit. They are a clarks desert boots shoe that look good on many people. And I know many Mods in the 1960s wore them with suits, but remember, not everything done in the sixties was a winner and for me, desert boots just don’t do justice to a nice two-piece suit.

  14. Dear all,

    I am an undergraduate from the University Of Nottingham and I require help with my dissertation research.

    My dissertation research intends to study the iconic Desert Boot letting it speak for itself and tell its own stories, in an attempt to reveal the hidden global complexities of commodities. I want to highlight the need for studies of more than the simply the labour behind the product, through looking at the culture and heritage of the brand C. & J. Clarks Ltd. to unravel the hidden global tales.

    I require research participants who own a pair of Clarks Desert Boots to participate in the study. Participant names/details will not be divulged.

    If any of these ideas interest you please do not hesitate to contact me, I would appreciate your support.

    Yours Sincerely,

    Lydia Bell

  15. I know this is a late one Carlos and I know you're familiar with my thoughts on the desert boot as well :-) . We purchased our desert boots from the Army & Navy Stores,Clarkes was a shop we never looked in because it was for kids and old men.Clarkes claim some kind of credit for the casual 'pre-trainer' substitute,but in fact they were ex army issue desert officers shoes from WW2 that stayed in service right into the 60's,they were cheap and cheerful and looked ok with jeans,terrible with anything formal.The whole Clarks desert boot legend was created by the kids that dressed up as mods in the 80's.They went bald after they'd got wet a few times and were for bumming around in. Then comes this strange mix of the 2 tone suit of the late 60's and this very strange combination,the fake tonic suits & felt boot were very rarely seen together , theie era's were several years apart in the sixties.In the late 60's I was given 30 pairs of ex army desert boots very cheaply,this time from the Baltic,they were sold for $3 a pair if I was lucky lol never to mods as they were old fashioned and outdated by the traditional leather soled British brogue,Oxfords,Royals & Americans,plus the tasselled and laced loafer of Ravel & Loakes fame. Would I be seen in a pair of desert boots now ? No is the answer,they looked ok on a 16 year old denim clad kid on a scooter in 1966 , cheap and cheerfull , for a formal look a pair of ex army designed shoes that cost about as much as a gallon of petrol would look just terrible and out of time with clothes from a diferent class and era. :-))It's like wearing a parka with a dickie bow lol.

    1. Okay, that last comment "like wearing a parka with a dickie bow" cracked me up!

      Sorry that I haven't responded to your other comments yet, as well. This comment, like those others, are like educational history lessons so it takes me a little longer to digest them. (At my age, it's easy to think you know so much from reading books, but then you get first-hand accounts like this and it gives you a more clear perspective.)

      I think you're definitely right in that the desert boot look took on a more standard status with later, revival Mods, interpreting the 1960s look. I think Quadrophenia has also had a big hand in popularizing that look. It's almost like they're standard-issue 'Mod' wear for anyone going for the look.

      What's interesting now is just how popular they have become with men in general. Over hear, on the West Coast of the U.S., you can find them almost everywhere and people of all ages wear them. Bit by bit, that stereotypical look has been infiltrating men's fashion.

      Me, I'll stick with my leather shoes!

  16. I have to check my UK WWII Militaria Books, but the desert boots were a Commonwealth issue WWII item used in North Africa. Like many Mod items it has it's roots in the military of the 40's and 50's.

  17. Always had a pair from '63 on. Only could buy Beige or sand. I think thye were about 69/11d then - £3.50 today! When a a pair got scruffy - dyed them navy - I wasn't the first, used to see wine and green ( rather radical then ). Never saw them with suits, always with jeans.

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